Photos by Matthew Lahey
It’s a few minutes after 9:00 am on a Thursday, and the smell of fresh garlic and seasoning fills the air of Huntsville High School’s kitchen. The kitchen buzzes with the sounds of chatter, laughing, and the clanking of kitchenware. Twelve women are all working as a team to prepare by hand about 300 meals that will be taken throughout the community today by the Green Hornet, a food bus initiative started last summer in the Huntsville community to feed any child for free. On the menu today is chicken Alfredo, garlic green beans, garlic bread, fresh diced watermelon, and white or chocolate milk. The bus makes its route Monday through Thursday all summer long, feeding all children up to 18 years old for free, with adult rates at $3.25 a plate. Today the bus is stopping at Cogan’s Creek, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, University Heights Baptist Church, and Riverside Baptist Church.
Henry Tapia, the Director of Child Nutrition at the school for ten years, holds their food to a high standard of health, quality, and freshness. “Everything is locally sourced, and we cook the meals fresh every morning. We want to support the Texas economy and Texas farmers, while also reducing sodium, trans fats, and unprocessed foods used in our meals.” Growing up in Corpus Christi, Henry always valued a strong sense of community. He implements this belief by only purchasing locally sourced produce and encouraging community engagement through block parties to promote awareness about the Green Hornet. Some fresh produce you can find in their kitchen are strawberries from Poteet, peaches from Fredericksburg, watermelon from Mission, and blueberries from Beaumont.
10:15 AM – The ground is beginning to dry from a morning shower, and it is a warm, humid Texas day. The meals are prepped and packaged, and it’s time to begin loading the bus with ice chests full of cold milk, cold watermelon, and hot meals. The bus is driven by Ronald Kelly, a humble man with a big smile and very impressive bus parking skills. (If I had a nickel for every time he asked a child today, “White or chocolate milk?”, I probably could have bought a second bus!) His kindness and patience was matched only by the presence of Sylvia Kelly and Maria Estrada, both food service employees at the high school and second year Green Hornet riders.
10:30 AM – The bus is loaded, seatbelts buckled, and we’re ready for take off. We arrive in Cogan’s Creek at 10:50 am to two kids already standing outside, ready for some good food! Within a minute, ten more began to trickle out of the houses and a few cars drive toward the bus with expectation. We all get off the bus and welcome them, and then Sylvia and Maria begin to bag up the first set of meals. They are handed through the window to Mr. Kelly, who then gives them each a bag and a milk of their choice one at a time. There are many smiles as they walk away, some of the kids being only twice the size of the bag itself! At one point I saw a little girl, no older than four, using her forehead to stabilize the milk carton on top of the paper bag. Innovation. It was a site to see, watching the tiniest ones try their best not to drop anything.
At this stop, I spoke with Kevin Stanford, the Assistant Superintendent over the HISD food program. “Last summer, we were feeding 175-200 kids a day; this summer, our goal is to feed 300 a day and to increase this number as time goes on.” In order to raise awareness in the community about the Green Hornet feeding program, the school uses outlets like hosting block parties with music and food, newspapers, social media, and brochures passed out by volunteer SHSU students. At 11:15 am we depart from Cogan’s Creek having filled 24 bellies with warm, delicious food!
11:30 AM – Mr. Kelly pulls the bus into the YMCA parking lot, and there is already a group making their way toward us wearing “YMCA teen camp” t-shirts. At this point, I have become mercilessly carsick from the bumpy terrain of Huntsville (in addition to the bus being on this earth longer than I have). I almost mow Mr. Kelly over getting off the bus and sit on the sidewalk, sipping an orange Gatorade given to me by Mrs. Sylvia. Because most of the kids are gone on a field trip (doing a scavenger hunt at Sam Houston’s statue), 29 meals are carried inside and wait for them upon their return. I take this time to observe as our extremely personable photographer, Matthew, helps a grateful YMCA worker carry in the boxes of food and a cooler of mini milk cartons. I sit on the ground, motion sickness fading (to God be the glory), and watch Mr. Kelly patiently show a child how to hold their lunch bag horizontally so the watermelon container will stop leaking juice onto the already soggy bag.
NOON – The Green Hornet parks in front of the Boys and Girls Club. I have to say this was my favorite stop, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. There are a couple of families already waiting. Mr. Kelly, Sylvia, and Maria kick it into overdrive as a large group of chatty elementary-age kids files out and lines up in front of the bus. There is so much diversity, so many different smiles, hair-dos, and outfits. It’s safe to say children these days are very “fashion-forward.” I saw knee-high socks, cowboy boots, blue hair, and a really cool Mickey Mouse shirt, all of them equally precious. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face watching these kids. They were all so content. Isn’t it wonderful how children can sometimes teach us lessons unknowingly?
High-pitched choruses of “Thank you” could be heard, followed by a low “You’re welcome” from Mr. Kelly. The three people working the bus never missed a beat and smiled the entire time. The whole scene was so warm, I wish you could have been there to see it yourself. They loaded each child up with a lunch and sent them trotting back into the building. After one long line was served and back inside, a new group would run out excitedly—after a while, I couldn’t keep track of how many there were! One of the last fleets to come out to the bus was a group of even younger ones who brought outside with them chirpy voices, some clapping, and some hugs. One little girl in particular got my attention with her personality and her socks—one pink and one blue. She danced a little, gave high-fives for no apparent reason, and said good job a couple of times. I’m not sure what she was congratulating her peers about, but her joy was absolutely contagious. At this location, the Green Hornet fed 73 children total.
12:20 PM – We set out for the next stop, University Heights Baptist Church. We park and don’t see anyone in sight. Mr. Kelly explains that only on certain days are there a few families here anticipating the bus. We wait a few more minutes to see if anyone will show, and then it’s time to make our way to Riverside. On the drive to Riverside Baptist Church, Matthew and I have the pleasure of talking to Sylvia and Maria, who sat across from us in the 4-seater booth on the bus. Maria mentioned how much the area has grown since the 80s and how her mother would be amazed. Sylvia talked about the wonderful vacations she takes with her whole family. Matthew talks about his adventures and his children. One of my favorite parts of this day was the conversation on the bus and getting to know these people who do this nearly every day during the summer.
1:00 PM – We pull into the wet parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church. Some kids are splashing through the puddles in the parking lot, while some are carefully avoiding the water. One precious little girl with blonde ringlets walks away from the bus holding her lunch in one hand and her doll in the other. At every stop, the members of the bus all work as a team—Maria puts the meal in a bag, Sylvia hands them through the window to Mr. Kelly, and he delivers them to each child along with a cold milk—smiling the whole while.
1:15 PM – We head back to Huntsville High School, wrapping up the Green Hornet’s adventures for the day. When we get back, I ask the ladies in the kitchen if I can have some of the watermelon that had been taunting me the entire morning. When they say yes, I scarf it down and enjoy the sweetness of it all. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. I walked around the kitchen to say my goodbyes as Matthew showed the women pictures of the joy they helped make possible that day. When we leave, Mrs. Sylvia says with a big smile, “If you ever get bored, come back and see us.” I think I will go back to visit them, whether I am bored or not.
Our area is a special place with some really special people. I have lived here for four years now, and never have I felt such a strong sense of community in any of the previous towns in which I’ve lived. Today, I got to see and experience so many different areas of our community and the precious children who live here. The Green Hornet is a blessing to families all across this community, and it was a pleasure getting to watch it all firsthand. The Green Hornet and the people who make this happen bring many smiles, fill many bellies, and bring this community even closer together. If you or your children would like to enjoy a delicious, fresh, handmade meal, stop by one of the above locations Monday-Thursday all summer long.
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